Before I joined the military, I’d read dozens of books in all genres that involved all kinds of armies and military forces. It was only after I saw the real thing from the inside that I started to notice the variety of ways authors approach the military in fiction. Authenticity doesn’t impress me; there are plenty of writers who’ve served, or at least done their research. War is a complex subject, and I’m interested in books that have something to say about the real-life issues confronting people in uniform, or broader commentary on the nature of war.
These aren’t necessarily the most high-profile military science fiction and fantasy books, but they all gave me some kind of insight at different points in my life.
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold’s take on martial culture can come off as overly romantic, even rose-tinted—but at the end of the day, her handling of conflict is grounded and uncompromising. In the early Vorkosigan books, she brings a level of attention to her characters as individuals that sets her work apart from the bulk of military SF. Her willingness to confront mental health as an important aspect of a soldier’s life is encouraging, because the psychological consequences of violence are so often slept on by writers who take the Hollywood approach to war.
Domes of Fire by David Eddings
I have complicated feelings on Eddings on the whole, but I really like his approach to the military. Sometimes I feel like his characters spend more time murdering people in cold blood than they do fighting them—but the thing to remember is that in war, that’s ideal. It’s not very flattering, but that’s how it is. Despite some sketchy ethics, Eddings’ characters display a competent and focused mindset with regards military operations that you don’t often see in fantasy fiction. I find that pragmatism, and the fact that his characters are generally on top of things refreshing.
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
No, not Ender’s Game. Ender’s Game shows us the action, so to speak. Speaker for the Dead and its sequels deal with the aftermath of that action—something military SF as a genre often neglects to do. Wars usually last a few years; recoveries from wars take decades, and that goes for people as well as countries. Books are about characters, characters are people, people are affected by events. The Speaker trilogy doesn’t just acknowledge those effects, it deliberately explores them. The commentary on means and ends in Ender’s Game is great, but Ender’s Game is high profile, and Speaker is largely overlooked—but it has just as much to offer. Personally, I prefer it.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
A classic Vietnam allegory that’s influenced many writers. The Forever War isn’t just an intelligent and dignified political commentary; it’s an engaging and personal science fiction novel that’s well done on every level. Haldeman breaks down the philosophy underlying modern militaries and the wars they fight, giving elegant and balanced acknowledgement to war’s necessity, and its absurdity. It’s a bit like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but with slightly more gravitas, and infinitely more soul.
Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein
Normally if you want to talk military SF from Heinlein, you reach for Starship Troopers—but everybody knows Starship Troopers. Not everybody knows Space Cadet. Though it doesn’t contain any warfare, Heinlein goes much further than usual for the genre in articulating the culture and thinking behind this book’s military. It’s a side of the military we rarely see in fiction: the organization’s philosophy and values. It’s not exactly a high-impact book, but Heinlein’s portrait of the framework underlying this elite military outfit has been a lasting influence not only on my work, but on the way I view the military in the real world.
Top image: detail from Shards of Honor cover; art by Paul Youll.
Sean Danker has been writing since he was fifteen. He read entirely too much Asimov in college, and now we’re all paying the price for it. His hobbies include biting off more than he can chew, feeling sorry for himself on Twitter, and telling people to lighten up. He is currently serving in the military on a base in North Dakota. Admiral, available May 3rd from Roc, is the first book in his new military SF series.